Walking Away by C Day-Lewis, published in 1962, is an autobiographical poem. It is dedicated to Lewis’s son, and is based on Lewis’s personal feelings and experiences. The piece is about a parent watching their child become independent, and accepting that for the child to grow, the parent needs to let them go.
Walking Away | Summary
The poem starts with the narrator thinking back to the sunny, autumn day of his son’s first football match, almost eighteen years ago. The poet likened his son to a satellite drifting from its orbit when his son trailed behind the rest of the boys on the team, and remembers watching his son walk away from him and towards the school building. The son’s posture was unsure, as though walking into a jungle and being unable to find a path to tread. His hesitancy created the image of a loose seed suddenly separated from its parent stem, and floating on its way alone.
While recalling this, the poet thinks that he cannot quite convey in words the emotion that moment evoked: the inexplicability of nature’s giving-and-receiving, and the realisation that this independence is what his son needs to find his identity. Future experiences are the fire that shapes the clay. Despite knowing this, it is still difficult to let go. The poet has had several partitions in the past, some even worse. But none of them stayed in his mind so clearly for so many years. Perhaps the reason for that is one which only God could have shown him: one will truly find their identity only when they walk away and blaze their own path. And no matter how difficult it is to let go, it is doing so that proves the parents’ love.
Walking Away | Analysis
Walking Away is an autobiographical poem by C Day-Lewis, a British poet. This piece is dedicated to his son. Therefore, the narrator is the poet himself, and more importantly in this context, he is a father. This piece is written in one stanza using first-person narrative, and the words are directed towards the child, who is referred to as ‘you’ throughout the piece. The central themes are parental love, growing up, letting go, and acceptance. It is also important to note that much of this poem is written in past tense, as the narrator remembers an incident from nearly eighteen years prior. The tone of the poem is simple and melancholic, with the poet using a great deal of imagery and metaphors, which add to the genuine feeling of the writing. The use of the personal pronoun ‘you’ creates an intimacy with the reader, and the steady, unhurried pace provides the opportunity for the readers to experience a build-up of emotions.
Walking Away | Analysis, Lines 1-6
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
Behind a scatter of boys.
The poem begins with the lines “It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day – a sunny day with leaves just turning,” hence establishing the past-tense and telling readers that this poem is based on a memory. Further, we may note that this incident is extremely important to the poet, as he remembers it down to the date, and can even recall the setting and the colour of the leaves. The leaves “just turning” symbolises a new beginning for the child as well. The poet is reminiscing about his son’s first football match, thinking the “the touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play.” Touch-lines demarcate the football field and it is according to them that players position themselves and play- overriding the touch-lines is breaking the rules of the game. Here, the touch-lines represent the new rules and regulations the child may need to keep in mind as he grows older and begins to lead a life of his own. The football field represents the playing field of life.
The poet says that during the game, his son was “then, like a satellite wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away behind a scatter of boys.” The comparison of the boy’s behaviour to a satellite indicates the unsureness and novelty he radiates. When a satellite- which was comfortably moving in its orbit and doing the same thing it has always known- is removed from its usual environment, it “drifts” and floats diffidently in its new surroundings. Similarly, the boy is being removed from his accustomed environment, which is at home with his parents, and being thrust into a new place with new people. It was the period before settling in, when he still felt hesitant about his position in his new life. This can be seen from how he drifts “behind a scatter of boys” rather than with them. He does not feel like he belongs just yet. This creates a feeling of bittersweet empathy for the parent- they know all too well the feeling of hanging midway between the old life and the new one, and they wish to shelter their child through its discomforts- but at the same time, they can only stand back and watch, for they know it is something to be done independently. Here, we see the first hint of “letting go”
Walking Away | Analysis, Lines 6-10
Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.
The poet watches his son walk away from him and towards the school. The phrase “walk away” here is a nod to the title. The father felt that the son walked “with the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free, into a wilderness, the gait of one who finds no path where the path should be.” The usage of the word ‘pathos’ indicates that the poet feels worried about his son, as he can sense the slight fear or sadness from his stance. The “wilderness” symbolises the confusion and unexpected nature that new journeys can bring. More importantly, the line “one who finds no path where the path should be.” is the introduction of the concept of identity. When one starts a new life by themselves, they must mark a place for themselves in society. This involves understanding themselves, making their own decisions, and carving out their identity. The absence of a path where it ‘should’ be symbolises the common (and often false) notion that when one approaches adulthood, the road is laid out already and must simply be followed, when in reality, everyone’s journey is different and unique. The poet, having experienced this already, knows it. And he watched his son realise the same thing- that there is no pre-existing path, only what a person creates for themselves.
Following this, the poet employs a great deal of comparison and vivid imagery:
“That hesitant figure, eddying away like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem, has something I never quite grasp to convey about nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.”
Walking Away | Analysis, Lines 11-15
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.
The narrator paints a picture of a seed being detached from its stem and floating away in the wind. He likens this to his son- the parent stem is the son’s family and household, while the son himself is the winged seed. It is time for him to move on with his own life, and break away from the shelter of the ‘parent stem’. It is important to note that the seed is a winged one. These wings also symbolise the potential the father believes his son has. “Spreading your wings” is a common notation for reaching goals, discovering abilities and thriving. The father compared his son to a “winged seed” because he believes that despite the period of hesitance and nervousness, he has the potential to spread his wings and soar- the father trusted that the son would succeed. He then thinks about the incredible abilities of nature. The “give and take” refers to the son. The universe gave the poet a son, and just as slowly, he must watch his son grow up and walk away, into the real world.
The “small scorching ordeals” are those incidents which everyone faces in their life, which may be difficult to deal with. It is dealing with them that makes one stronger and more capable, and which molds one’s personality. It is the son’s personality that is depicted as “irresolute clay.” Clay’s main characteristic is its ability to be shaped. The son is like the clay- hesitant, but moldable. He has room for growth and improvement, and those difficult moments will build him into a better person. Once again, the father is wholly aware of this, but it still gives a bittersweet feeling- it is not easy for parents to let go of their child, knowing that the road ahead is difficult. It is in their nature to want to protect and shield them from harm. Here, we see a theme of maturity in both parent and son- the son, as he accepts these new challenges despite his anxiousness, and the father, who accepts that it is a necessary process, and quietly watches it happen without interfering.
Walking Away | Analysis, Lines 16-20
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
The poet says “I have had worse partings, but none that so gnaws at my mind still.” It is clear that this incident remains in the poet’s mind- after all, he is recalling an eighteen-year-old memory. The reason he says “I have had worse” is because watching one’s child grow up is not a bad thing. The “worse” may be referring to deaths or severed friendships. The child forming their own personality and place in life is something for a parent to be proud of- hence, however difficult it is to let go, the parent watches on with pride. However, it “still gnaws on” his mind because parting with a loved one leaves behind a hint of nostalgia and nervousness. The narrator concludes by saying:
“Perhaps it is roughly saying what God alone could perfectly show –
how selfhood begins with a walking away,
and love is proved in the letting go.”
This is the simplest yet most impactful line in the poem, summing up all the built-up emotion. This line showcases acceptance, love and partition. “The selfhood” refers to the child’s first steps into a new life, and most importantly, the formation of his identity. This begins with stepping forward on his own, becoming independent and dealing with his own situations and experiences- this is what builds character, and can only happen if he walks away. There is no specified direction or destination, and this symbolises the unexpected quality of life- it is not always possible to know exactly where you are headed.
The poet also states that “love is proved in the letting go.” Here, it is parental love. After raising a child, seeing him since birth, and loving him infinitely, it is not easy for a parent to realise that there will be parts of their child’s life that they are not fully aware of, and that there will be situations where they cannot step in as a shield. However, they know that protecting the child forever is counterproductive- the child will not gain exposure or build resilience. In the end, the protection will only make them weaker. It is similar to a butterfly exiting its cocoon for the first time- it is a strenuous process, but it is that process which builds in its wings the strength to fly. If a human were to cut open the cocoon in hopes of helping the butterfly escape, the wings will remain weak forever, as it never went through the pain of pushing through. It is the protected butterfly that will not be able to fly.
As reflected through the poem, the poet is aware of this. And hence, he stepped back and watched his son experience these aspects of life for the first time. He watched his son exhibit hesitancy and unsureness, but stood quietly on the sidelines, for his interference would do no good. He watched his son walk away, knowing that it was necessary for him to grow. It is an emotional realization that takes great maturity and acceptance. And more than anything, it is the love the poet has for his son that acts as a motivating factor to let him walk away. The father wants to see his son grow strong and happy and form a name for himself. And for that, he must let him go and watch over him from afar.